High School Football Teams Get to Work
LEOMINSTER -- At about 2:15 p.m. Friday, Leominster High head football coach Dave Palazzi walked into the middle of the rubber gymnasium, gave two bleats of his whistle -- he wore several, in case one of his assistants needed one -- and quickly had every eye in the place trained on him.
“Let’s get up to the locker room,” Palazzi began, “and get out to the field.”
With that, high school football conditioning camps and the 2018 fall sports season got underway.
While the MIAA allows teams to get started at 8 a.m., most schools in the Montachusett Region got their seasons started a little later in the day.
North Middlesex, Oakmont and Ayer Shirley regionals got an early jump, and Leominster got started at 2:30 p.m. at its practice field behind the high school.
“Best day of the year,” Leominster senior Zack DelGiudace told classmate Zack Khallady before exchanging hugs. Khallady would implore underclassmen to grab bags and bring them up to the field.
While everyone agreed it’s great to be back out on the football field -- Monty Tech coach Anthony Secino mentioned that the Bulldogs had hoped to stay outside as Friday’s rain drenched the Fitchburg/Westminster line a little after 3 p.m.; when we reached Nashoba just after 6 p.m., they had started defensive work in the gym before heading out -- everyone also agreed it’s time to see where their teams stand after offseason work in the weight rooms.
And for some players, it’s all about starting fresh.
“We’re excited,” Palazzi said before the Blue Devils got to work on stretching. “We’re here before any of the other teams start, kids are at the end of the summer, but we’re excited to get started. It’s preseason, it’s football, it’s Leominster football.”
For the first few days of camp, it’s all about conditioning: Players wore their practice jerseys and helmets, as well as gym shorts. For those who practiced outside, it was all about cleats. It will be this way until Tuesday and Wednesday, when players can get into the “uppers,” which are helmet and shoulder pads.
On Thursday, the good old-fashioned contact begins.
But there’s also the mental side of the game that’s important during these first few days together.
“We want to get conditioned and get our installs in and get the plays we’re going to run, formations, recognition, alignments, stances, and form tackling when we can do that. It’s safe situations so when we go live, they know the techniques,” Palazzi added.
It’s the same over at historic Crocker Field, and the Amiott practice field across River Street in Fitchburg.
“Our kids are excited, they’ve really worked hard since the end of last season, and they’re chomping at the bit to get out there,” said second-year FHS head coach Tom DiGeronimo. “It’s the mental part of the game, alignments, assignments (that we’re working on). Getting our kids lined up the right way, and taking care of the mental part of the game. Then we’ll put the pads on and get a little more physical.”
Speaking of physical, for Monty Tech coach Secino, he’ll know how his Bulldogs will fare once the hitting starts -- but not against his own players.
“Some kids have worked out and gotten bigger, which is great, so we’d like to see them grow,” Secino said in the coaches room in the Bulldog Athletic Complex. “You have to see yourself against other teams. When you’re competing against yourself, you don’t know what you have. We’ll figure out what we have then. We hope to see everybody, see what kids can do and how they do against other teams. When you go against your teammates, there’s comfort there. So we like to see it when they’re uncomfortable and see how they react in certain situations.”
While teams are allowed to start facing off next Thursday, St. Bernard’s will wait an extra two days until its first scrimmage against Auburn next Saturday.
“One can argue we’re a better tackling team and a more physical team over the last five or six years,” longtime St. Bernard’s head coach Tom Bingham said as linemen worked their stances at the Bernardian Bowl. “We’ll use bags and all that, but the first live tackling will be next Saturday.
“It’s very good to get back out. You look forward to it. It’ll take us a day or two to get back into our routine -- we welcome that.”
Bingham noted the new MIAA rules for football, which limit the scope of what teams can do during these first few days of training camp.
“We’ll take the time to utilize the new rules to our advantage: We do a lot of conditioning, a lot of teaching, a lot of mental prep, so when we’re allowed to start using bags, we’ll be able to kind of implement everything,” he said. “They have definitions as to what’s a walk-through, what’s an uppers practice, so they’ve really gone through and clearly identified everything.
“To us, it’s tweaking what we normally do. We’re ahead of the curve: on a Friday night, we don’t have to teach a kid how to be an aggressive football player. When you take a look at when someone misses a tackle, it’s not from a lack of aggression, it’s more from a standpoint of not being in the right position or coming off a block. It’s all prep work.”
At Lunenburg, longtime lineman coach Anthony Muhnisky worked some big boys through their paces as we arrived just after 5 p.m.
Longtime Blue Knights coach Steve Boone believes that a good first day of camp can truly set the tone for the entirety of the football season -- from Friday to the fourth Thursday in November.
“If you come out and everything is on time, crisp, positive, exciting, it can set the tone for the year, and hopefully carry through,” he said. “This is the best part of the year. You know that. You’ve been preparing since a week after last year; you get to get out with the kids and start to see things, you see it come together. It’s exciting.
“After ten minutes, they’re all here and working hard. We’re hoping for some excitement this year.”
Training camp should also be a bonding experience for teams, Boone added.
“The main thing, you try to build your team unity, get the kids to come together as a team, as a unit. A year makes a big difference in high school kids. You see who’s ready to take that next step, who has the mentality to step up and fill those positions. You want to see who worked hard over the summer, and who’s ready to go.”
At Leominster, Palazzi echoed that.
“I want to see guys hustling. I want to see a team atmosphere and you’re building that camaraderie, and these kids, as far as working out in the summer, you can’t work out enough for this. We’ll be able to get a look at who’s in shape and who needs to get in shape,” he said.
At Nashoba Regional, the defending Division 4 state finalists got started inside and were working on defensive alignments when we arrived in Bolton.
But they finished their work for the day outside.
“It’s fun to be back, it’s always a hectic day, but it’s fun,” said Chieftains coach Jamie Tucker. “It’s good to be back, and it’s good to be doing football stuff.”
While the Chieftains have had success in recent years, including two trips to Gillette Stadium in the last three seasons, Tucker dismisses any talk of getting back there, at least right now: There are still eight regular season games to play, plus playoffs. Lots of work, of course.
“We’ve had success lately, but you can’t worry about past seasons. This is a new group, a new team, and we have to get ready to go,” he said. “We went over base alignments with defensive stuff, and when you get to the early camp, it’s all about teaching. You’re starting over, you’re teaching your offense, your defense, anything new you might be doing, and it’s all about install. Everyone’s got to learn. Some kids have that experience, but you have to start from scratch every year.”
In three weeks, the real games begin.
Bring it on.